Reign of Zhengde and Liu Jin

The reign of Ming emperor Zhengde, during which the eunuch Liu Jin held power, marked a period of great conflict between the eunuchs and the Ming bureaucracy.

Summary of Event

Eunuchs played a significant role in government and the military during the Ming Dynasty Ming Dynasty (1368-1644);eunuchs . In the early fourteenth century, when China was ravaged by civil war, military detachments of eunuchs Eunuchs, Chinese were given the duty of protecting the royal family. Their military skill was so impressive that the emperor, Yonglo (r. 1402-1424), began to send these excellent fighters to the most dangerous parts of the empire. Companies of eunuchs had considerable success in battles against the Mongols on China’s northern borders, while other groups successfully controlled the problem of marauding pirates along China’s seacoasts. Zhengde
Liu Jin
Han Wen
Jiao Fang
Zhang Yong
Han Wen
Jiao Fang
Zhang Yong
Liu Jin

By 1411, great numbers of eunuchs had become a significant part of China’s military establishment. They also played an important role in the development of China’s new military technology. The use of gunpowder as a weapon became very important during the Ming Dynasty. Many eunuchs were placed in charge of research and development as well as production in China’s military-industrial complex. When a detachment of eunuchs was given the duty to establish a defensive perimeter around the Ming capital of Beijing, they placed highly accurate cannons in the elevated areas around the capital city. These weapons made Beijing virtually impregnable. Military;China

For most of the fifteenth century, the political power of the eunuchs was contained by a series of strong emperors and a powerful Confucian bureaucracy of scholar-officials. This was especially true during the reign of Xiaozong (Zhu Youcheng, Zhu Yutang, Chu Yu-t’ang, reign motto Hongzhi; r. 1488-1505). An excellent ruler, he was trained in the neo-Confucian philosophy that emphasized the characteristics of duty, honor, and commitment to the well-being of the empire.

The unexpected death of Xiaozong in 1505 set in motion a chain of events that would lead to one of the worst periods of political abuse in Chinese history. Xiaozong was succeeded by his thirteen-year-old son, who took the reign name Zhengde. At first the new emperor seemed to be the mirror image of his father, and many people believed that the transition of power signaled the same focus on the Confucian ideals in government. In fact, Zhengde had superior credentials. He was an excellent student who had always been the perfect example of someone who aspired to acting as the ideal Confucian philosopher-king.

Unfortunately, the new emperor inherited three major political problems that would be the foundation of the unrest and abuse that eventually brought down his regime. Like his father and many of the emperors before him, Zhengde faced the traditional problem of nomadic warrior tribes along China’s northern borders. Chief among these were the Mongols Mongol Empire , who were able to move at will, inflicting heavy casualties on Chinese forces. China’s walled fortifications, which also acted as the base of military operations, were always short on supplies. The security of the empire would be placed in great jeopardy if a solution were not found to this problem. Second, there was widespread dissent within the upper levels of the Ming bureaucracy. Finally and perhaps most pressing, the new emperor also faced a growing financial crisis that was placing a tremendous strain on the empire’s treasury.

The source of the scholar-officials’ discontent was a struggle between the growing influence of a very powerful group of eunuchs known as the Eight Tigers Eight Tigers , led by Liu Jin and senior advisers to the new emperor. The most powerful part of this advisory group were four powerful administrators known as the Grand Secretaries. There was a significant generation gap between the young emperor and these advisers, and Zhengde sought confidants closer to his own age.

It was also at this time that the young emperor began to reject his Confucian upbringing and embrace an extremely worldly attitude toward life. Additionally, Zhengde began a close relationship with Liu Jin and the Eight Tigers. The young emperor soon developed a reputation as a drunkard and carouser. Liu Jin ingratiated himself with Zhengde by helping to provide the young emperor with opportunities to indulge his vices. Zhengde eventually became so corrupt that he completely neglected his duties. His mismanagement was depleting the treasury at such a rapid rate that the empire was on the verge of financial collapse. Zhengde eventually had a meeting with his minister of finance, Han Wen. Han Wen informed the emperor that his government was spending money at approximately four times the rate of his father’s regime. Han Wen was a minister of the highest reputation, and he knew that the only way to obtain control of the financial situation was to have Zhengde reduce his spending. When the emperor suggested that the government raise taxes, Han Wen refused on the basis that new taxes would place a large burden on the peasantry, which would eventually cause rebellion and political chaos. Taxation;China

Zhengde responded by placing Liu Jin in charge of increasing the amount of money flowing into the government treasury. Liu Jin immediately began an investigation to attack the traditional bureaucracy and enhance his own power. He also used this investigation as a pretext to gain control of the Ming secret police. This powerful organization, known as the Dongchung Dongchung , had been established under the emperor Yonglo (r. 1402-1424) in an attempt to prevent subversive activities that could undermine the peace and security of the empire. Over time it penetrated every part of the bureaucracy, and its informants provided the agency with information on thousands of bureaucrats. By the time Liu Jin gained control of the Dongchung, it was the most hated government institution in China. Liu Jin expanded the reach of the Dongchung by adding two spy agencies at the Ming court.

Once he had firmly established his power, Liu Jin initiated a reign of terror in which he attempted to “purge” every government agency of its most senior personnel. He charged many of these powerful bureaucrats with official misconduct and corruption, and he subsequently had them imprisoned and executed. In this manner, Liu Jin was able to disrupt the power base within the Chinese bureaucracy. Many of the senior, established eunuchs viewed these actions as a direct attack on their own security. They created a plan that would outline all of Lui Jin’s abuses. They would then take this information to the emperor and ask for his execution.

One of Liu Jin’s most trusted intelligence agents, Jiao Fang, discovered the plan and warned Liu Jin that he was in grave danger. Liu Jin took the initiative and asked for an audience with the emperor. He convinced Zhengde that the charges were untrue and constituted an attempt by corrupt bureaucrats to maintain their own power.

On learning that the plan had been exposed, the leaders resigned from their positions in the bureaucracy, and Liu Jin rewarded Jiao Fang with a position as a major court adviser. One of Jiao Fang’s first assignments was to carry out a series of assignations against the bureaucrats who had called for Liu Jin’s execution. These assassinations began another reign of terror, whose object was to give Liu Jin complete control of the bureaucracy.

This nationwide attack did not go uncontested, and this time the opposition was led by a trusted and highly respected eunuch, Zhang Yong. He was a decorated general officer who had made his reputation as a brave fighter on China’s northern boarders. His great skill and success had made him a favorite of the emperor, and he used this connection to bring charges against Liu Jin. Zhang Yong delivered a petition to Zhengde listing the crimes Liu Jin had committed, including a plan to assassinate the emperor. This time the emperor was convinced, and he had Liu Jin executed. Zhengde’s regime never recovered from this political chaos, however, and the emperor eventually died from complications from alcoholism.


The Ming Dynasty entered into a period of decline in the 1500’, largely the result of a significant lack of imperial leadership and widespread corruption within the state bureaucracy. As time went on, the emperors found it increasingly difficult to trust their administrators and ministers. It became evident that the Ming royal family could not function without the loyalty and obedience of the eunuchs. By the end of the Ming Dynasty, eunuchs occupied important positions in the empire’s military establishment, as well as powerful positions as commanders of the Palace Guard. They also held important posts in the Ming military-industrial complex. Not unlike Liu Jin, many eunuchs used their positions to increase their own power, and this led to more widespread corruption.

Political chaos continued to undermine the power of the emperor, and by the middle of the seventeenth century China was torn apart by famine and rebellion. In 1644, the Manchus, a nomadic tribe from the north, captured the capital of Beijing and brought an end to the Ming Dynasty.

Further Reading

  • Gernet, Jacques. A History of Chinese Civilization. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Excellent account of Chinese cultural history. Maps, index, bibliography.
  • Graff, David A., and Robin Higham. A Military History of China. Cambridge, Mass.: Westview Press, 2002. The best Chinese military history on the market. Maps, index, and bibliography.
  • Tsai, Henry. The Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty. Albany: New York State University Press, 1996. The most complete account of the impact of eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty.

Feb. 11, 1457: Restoration of Zhengtong

1465-1487: Reign of Xianzong

1474: Great Wall of China Is Built

1488-1505: Reign of Xiaozong

16th cent.: Rise of the Shenshi

16th cent.: Single-Whip Reform

1514-1598: Portuguese Reach China

1521-1567: Reign of Jiajing

1550-1571: Mongols Raid Beijing

Jan. 23, 1556: Earthquake in China Kills Thousands

1573-1620: Reign of Wanli

1583-1610: Matteo Ricci Travels to Beijing

1592: Publication of Wu Chengen’s The Journey to the West